“What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
The speaker was President Donald Trump, and his words were chilling.
He was talking about news reports on the tariff war he’d started. But his comment to a convention of veterans on Tuesday was a stark explanation of his method.
Deny what’s real. Spread falsehoods to create an alternate reality. Plant doubt about facts and the people and institutions who convey them.
The result is a national episode of vertigo, imposed by the very same person who offers himself as the lodestar to guide us through his chaos.
Americans always have had vigorous arguments over trade, taxes, immigration and other vexing issues. The freedom to challenge those ideas is the essence of our nation.
What Trump is doing is different. He’s not debating policy choices. Rather, he tries to destroy those who disagree with him, those who seek to hold him accountable. He wants to undermine public trust in the government and institutions that have served us well for more than 200 years.
In the dystopian novel “1984,” a totalitarian state manipulates history, prosecutes independent thinking and uses unique terminology to deceive and mislead its people.
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command,” George Orwell wrote.
Trump is using this manual.
So have despots throughout history who understood that control of facts is essential to control of the public. It’s true in autocracies like Russia and China, and in places where democracy is slipping — like Turkey, where strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan has jailed journalists and closed some press outlets, and where most of the remaining media is owned by people with ties to Erdogan.
Trump has been doing this his whole life. As a philandering New York developer, he planted false stories in tabloids to embellish himself and shut down those who claimed he treated them unfairly.
He’s not the first president to try to control the narrative. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, many modern chief executives have been hostile to at least some of the press, some have bent the truth, and some have sought to limit access to information.
But rather than stretch the margins of truth, Trump explodes depth charges at its base. His administration and Republicans in Congress, with a few exceptions, are complicit.
The hall of mirrors started on Day 1, when then-press secretary Sean Spicer, at the president’s direction, gave a fictitious account of the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. Last week, after careening between acceptance and denial of Russia’s election meddling, Trump used a different tack to turn facts on their head, saying the Russians would intervene in the upcoming midterms on behalf of Democrats. He cited no evidence to support that.
The White House no longer provides summaries to the public of Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders. Its “official” transcript and video of his Helsinki news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin did not include a question to Putin about whether he wanted Trump to win in 2016. (Putin said yes.) The White House said an audio mix-up caused the transcriber to miss the start of the question, though it was well-documented in media accounts and the world heard it live. The transcript was later amended.
A January transcript excised Trump’s embrace of an immigration proposal from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein — another eerie echo of “1984,” in which history is rewritten to conform with the party’s current version of the truth.
Trump denies things he’s on record as saying, claims documents prove one thing when they verify the opposite, and lies. The more he gets away with it, the more he is emboldened. The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” team says he averaged 4.9 false or misleading claims per day in his first 100 days as president. Now it’s 6.5.
The pace is exhausting. Exposing it all is impossible. And when people can’t distinguish between fact and fiction, they stop trying. The cynicism is crippling. Creating his own story line has always been Trump’s M.O. Now, as federal investigations into Trump’s dealings move into high gear, expect more efforts to confuse and sow doubt.
Our national equilibrium is askew. Too many people don’t trust our institutions, however flawed, to be legitimate counterbalances. Are we starting down the road where no one will be permitted to speak truth to power?
To assume the nation will endure is to ignore history and the rise of authoritarian leaders. Pushing back against the truth assault is essential. After Trump told the vets, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” the Veterans of Foreign Wars rejected his Orwellian appeal, saying it was “disappointed” in members who had booed the press and that the media is important to the VFW.
Discerning fact from fiction, respecting facts, and understanding that they set the terms of a debate are critical.
Orwell’s “1984” imagined an awful time when people lost the freedom to think, when “the lie became truth.”
Many Trump supporters say they take him seriously, but not literally, and chastise his opponents for doing the opposite. But here’s the truth:
If we don’t start doing both, our country is in trouble.